On Sunday night, one of Uber’s driverless car killed 49-year-old pedestrian in Arizona. Despite being manned by a safety-driver, Elaine Herzberg, a mother of two, was hit while crossing the road with her bike. The incident has left many people asking the same two questions: Why did the car’s software fail to see Elaine, and why didn’t the safety driver take over in time? But there’s a third pertinent question worth asking, one being avoiding in discussions of the matter—why do pedestrians keep dying on American roads?
A closer look at class and income offers some insight to the tragedy in Tempe, a city where the divide between rich and the poor is one of the largest in the country. In a 2012 report by Governing, a group that covers policy across state and local municipalities, found that pedestrians throughout the U.S. are killed at disproportionately higher rates in low-income areas. Take Florida, for instance. In this lightly-regulated state, where urban planning is heavily focused on the concerns of drivers, pedestrians are twice as likely to die in low-income areas in comparison with high-income neighborhoods. Low-income neighborhoods often lack even the most basic pedestrian infrastructure. Some states, like Georgia, have laws on the books with stiff penalties for pedestrians who cross the road. In 2012, Raquel Nelson was convicted of vernacular homicide after her four-year-old son he was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Legally speaking, Nelson was jaywalking, a practice that warrants a misdemeanor but is considered by many to be another form of racial-motivated policing.
The networks of roads and highways across the U.S. enforce, in many ways, existing inequality and prejudices. The safety of the much-praised driverless revolution is very much in question. Only a sliver of the data needed to make reasonable claims about driverless cars is in. As an op-ed in the Washington Post noted, Uber’s driverless fleet now has a fatality rate of 1 per 2 million miles driven—compared to 1.18 fatalities per 100 million miles by human drivers. Meanwhile, the pursuit of driver-less technology will work as a very real zero-sum situation between those who can be chauffeured by laser-guided Ubers and Teslas and those who have to wait for the “walk” sign to flash.